I am currently reading The Paper Garden : an Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock, a biography of the woman who invented the art of paper collage -- rather accidentally, it seems, by noticing the similarity of a piece of colored paper and the petal of a geranium. Interesting to think that of such trivial coincidences are art forms born.
I don't remember ever having heard of Mary Delany (1700-1788), so this was all new to me, and thus perhaps all the more amazing, to look at a collage like the one above and try to comprehend that it is all little bits of colored paper meticulously cut and pasted onto a black background, with startlingly life-like accuracy.
Delany had an interesting life, a marriage arranged by her family when she was seventeen to a much-older landowner who turned out to be an alcoholic and a gambler, which hardly surprisingly with hindsight turned out to have been such a disaster that Mary could not help being more than a little relieved when he dropped dead quite unexpectedly after seven years. Now only 24, Mary could perhaps have hoped to live the rest of her life in peace, but unfortunately her husband had not altered his will, and so she did not inherit even what little remained of his estate, and spent the next twenty years living with various friends and family, trying to secure a court appointment, setting up a small household and yet still finding time to produce reams of intelligent, witty, and sensible letters.
In her forties, Mary received a proposal of marriage from Patrick Delany, an Irish clergyman of her acquaintance (later Dean of Down), who it seems had long held her in the utmost regard. Now both widowed, the two enjoyed a very happy marriage until the Dean's death in 1768. A few years later, Mary made the connection between the bits of colored paper and the flower petal, and made nearly a thousand of these flower portraits, what she called collectively her "Flora Delanica", until her eyesight failed in her late eighties.
I found the book at the public library, opened it at random and read the first pages of the chapter on the passion flower, and was enchanted.
A portrait of Mary Delany, by John Opie, 1782.
Peacock, being a poet, has a way with words, so that her prose too is often very poetic. I did, though, I must confess, get a little tired of the amount of autobiography Peacock stuck into Mary's story. I can understand objectively why she felt it works, I guess, but subjectively, as it went along, I really wanted more Mary. The book itself is beautifully made, which I thought a lovely dollop of extra poeticism -- lovely creamy thick pages, a handsome dark font and wide margins. I was not sure in the end, though, that I wouldn't rather have simply a catalogue of Delany's "mosaicks", and spend a great many hours enjoying a vicarious friendship through her letters.